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Life and Art in Puerto Vallarta
I had visited Puerto Vallarta over 20 years ago on my only cruise ship experience—a “girls gone wild” blur of memories that are perhaps best left tucked away. My limited recollection of the city was a wide stretch of beach with a lot of restaurants and bars that catered to tourists. Since that time, many more high-rise condos and all-inclusive resorts have been built, and the city’s popularity as a vacation destination has ballooned. So for this trip, I was expecting to find a fairly sterile environment, without a lot of cultural flavor remaining. Boy was I wrong.
It’s funny how this trip flipped my expectations upside down. The small towns that I thought would be quaint and relaxing left me disillusioned. And what I thought would be the “touristy” big city of Puerto Vallarta was a vibrant place with layers of rich culture, many gracious and welcoming residents, and a variety of fun activities.
A huge “thank you” goes to Ben’s dad, who generously invited us to Puerto Vallarta in the first place, and loaned us his condominium. The location was ideal—right on the edge of the historic old town area and within walking distance to everything in the heart of the city.
We had a grand view overlooking the Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead):
To our right, the coastline curved north along the Bay of Banderas, and we could see some modern high-rise hotels in the distance:
Best of all, we were just a few steps away from the Malecón, a beachside promenade/boardwalk that extends along the coast, past restaurants, nightclubs, shops, street performers, vendors, and public art galore.
A daily stroll along this newly-renovated, ¾ mile pedestrian walkway was one of our favorite activities in Puerto Vallarta. The Malecón was a focal point for local residents and visitors alike, and there was always something—or someone—fascinating to watch.
Genevieve, Ben and Sebastian on the Malecón:
At the southern end of the Malécon was an outdoor stage next to 4 arches (Los Arcos), one of the famous icons of Puerto Vallarta.
At night, the arches would be a backdrop for musicians, actors or other groups performing on the stage.
A duet of musicians:
A mime's theatrics involved a lot of pelvic thrusts and grunting, so we didn’t stay long:
One of the most uplifting parts of the Malecón was the knock-your-socks-off display of public art. And we could touch it—no ringing bells and guards running to warn you to stay behind a line on a museum floor. Indeed, the sculptures practically begged for us to interact with them.
My favorite was the ladder reaching up to the sky with two figures near the top, dangling one arm and one foot off the rungs:
The work was called “In Search of Reason” by artist Sergio Bustamante. I adored the puffy, triangular heads, which I could see up close on a third figure at the bottom of the ladder:
Many people speculate that the bottom figure is the mother of the two figures on the ladder. Her imploring expression could mean, “Get down from the ladder!” or (my choice) “Wait for me!”
Each time we neared this sculpture, Genevieve and Sebastian ran ahead to climb the ladder and pretend to be one of the sculptural figures (sometimes waiting in a line for this privilege):
Another favorite was a circle of bronze chair creatures called “La Rotunda del Mar” (the Rotunda of the Sea) by artist Alejandro Colunga.
The chairs had a fascinating blend of features, such as human feet on one, and a deep sea diver head on another:
Continuing with the surrealistic theme was a bronze figure with a shiny obsidian belly, ready to gobble up a stone dangling above his mouth:
By artist Jonas Gutiérrez, it is called “El Sutil Comepiedras” (The Subtle Rock-Eater).
Another figurative work embodied the love story between the artist Ramiz Barquet and his wife Nelly. They were childhood sweethearts, but married other people, and then found each other again when older. After reuniting, they had sat together one afternoon on the Malecón, reminiscing, and reflecting on the richness of life. Barquet created two figures to represent that moment, calling the sculpture “La Nostalgia”:
Two more figures, “Vallarta Dancers” were sculpted by artist Jim Demetro after he watched an electrifying performance of the Mexican Hat Dance by Puerto Vallarta's talented Xiutla dance troupe. The body postures and swirling skirt capture the rhythm and energy of the dance:
And in all this eclectic mix of Mexican art, there was of course the figure of a Catholic holy man—Saint Pascual Bailón, patron saint of cooks, with his loaf of bread:
The continual rise and crash of waves on one side of the Malecón was echoed in the curved tail of the “Unicornio de la Buena Fortuna” (Unicorn of Good Fortune) by artist Anibal Riebeling:
A connection to the sea was also reflected in two spiky steel sculptures that resembled giant sea urchins—“Eriza Dos” by artist Maritza Vasquez:
One of the most photographed sculptures in Puerto Vallarta is artist Rafael Zamarripa’s “Caballero del Mar” (Horseman of the Sea), which has stood on the Malecón since 1976:
At the very end of the Malecón was a newer sculpture, “The Millenium”, which presented forms of life spiraling upwards in an homage to evolution:
At the top, artist Mathis Lidice had placed a female form holding a dove:
Other Malecón art included a tile mural called “Vendedores de Pescado” (Fish Sellers) by artist Manuel Lepe:
Three playful dolphins decorated the Friendship Fountain, which was given to Puerto Vallarta by the sister city of Santa Barbara, California in 1987:
Sculptor James Bottoms allegedly selected dolphins because the Chumash Indian word for dolphin means “to go around, to protect, and to go in peace.”
In addition to the “official” public art, there was an abundance of other art forms along the Malecón.
The walkway contained many fanciful touches, such as this swirl of pebbles:
A number of merchants used skeleton folk art to attract customers.
The Hilo nightclub had giant figures inside, overlooking the entrance:
Outside one restaurant was a chair with a suitcase and big ceramic shoes that you could slip your feet into and pretend that you were Forrest Gump:
We didn’t eat there, but Sebastian acquired a new stuffed friend who he named Carmen (after “camarón”, the Spanish word for shrimp):
Then there were the “living” sculptures that tried to charm tourists out of some change.
This angel was one of our favorites; he came to life when Genevieve and Sebastian slipped some coins into his box:
Another creative pose was this waiter in a permanent state of falling:
(I kept thinking of how much his neck must hurt from holding it up like that all day.)
A few sand sculptors had created some temporary masterpieces along the few segments of beach that didn’t get submerged by the daily tides.
This man was tidying up the fish in his mermaid’s hair:
And even though Santa was long gone, this artist was blowing loose sand off his creation:
Another art form that we enjoyed on the Malecón was music. One evening, we happened upon a performance by the Navy Symphonic Band:
And, of course, there was the art of food—or sweets.
This street vendor had packages of neatly arranged rolled candy:
From another vendor, Genevieve and I bought a huge two-tone chunk of chewy coconut goodness:
And one could argue that doughnuts are not “art”, but perhaps they are in Puerto Vallarta:
And then there is the art of balance.
Midway down the Malecón was a small beach with a garden of stones balanced in seemingly impossible poses:
The stones hadn’t jumped into those positions by themselves, of course, and the miracle worker soon arrived, sporting a bare chest and skin that had been bronzed by many hours in the sun. He made some adjustments to an existing stack of three stones and then continued his balancing act:
He let go of the top rock and nimbly stepped backwards, just in time to avoid the tumbling stones that smashed down.
A collective “Awwwwww” sounded from the small audience gathered nearby, with my own voice adding to the chorus.
And what did the man do?
Why, he bent down and gently hoisted the second stone back onto the base rock.
And then he repeated the process by meticulously replacing the third stone.
The top stone had been broken when the tower fell, so the man began looking around for another.
The secret to this balancing act was not magic. Instead, a small sign asking for tips provided a tip of its own, revealing two key ingredients for equilibrium and balance: Concentration and Patience.
As this year comes to a close, and I shift things around and seek balance in my own life, I will remember the stone man’s teaching.
With its vibrant art and beauty, Puerto Vallarta was a feast for the eyes. And the soul.
The rest of Old Town, as well as the fun activities that we did while here, will be covered in future stories. I will note, however, that I finally got a good night’s sleep, with only the sound of the churning waves in the background. Bliss.
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